Jeff Garrison is a partner with Fairburn Ga.-based S.J. Collins Enterprises, which is building two Whole Foods Market-anchored centers in the region.
Retail real estate is on the cusp of a major shift, says Jeff Garrison, and he thinks his company, S.J. Collins Enterprises, is at the forefront of the transformation.
“When you can shop online for 80% of your daily needs, you have to provide something creative and unique,” says Garrison, a partner with S.J. Collins, based in Fairburn, Ga., southwest of Atlanta. “It’s really about experience retail now.”
One of the best places to showcase that experience, says Garrison, is with Whole Foods Market-anchored centers, particularly in Florida and the Southeast. Founded in 2007, S.J. Collins, in total, has opened eight Whole Foods-anchored centers since 2011 and has at least 10 more across the nation in some form of development.
The company developed a 74,000-square-foot Whole Foods Center in Tallahassee in 2013, and has since targeted the Gulf Coast for other opportunities.
A general rule with Whole Foods, Garrison says, is the Austin-based grocer looks for annual household income levels above $75,000. That makes Florida’s diverse geography and demographics a good fit.
“Florida has incredible density, incredible education levels and incredible income levels,” says Garrison. “Florida is a great market for us.”
Construction started recently in north Sarasota for what will be a 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods. The project, at the southwest corner of University Parkway and Honore Avenue, includes a Wawa.
A second project is Daniels Marketplace, a 140,000-square-foot development anchored by what will be the first Whole Foods in Fort Myers. Lee County officials approved zoning applications in early October for Daniels Marketplace. The site is a former driving range next to a stormwater pond at the northwest intersection of Daniels Parkway and Ben C. Pratt/Six Mile Cypress Parkway.
The S.J. Collins model is to build its centers, then handle ownership and leasing. The firm, says Garrison, seeks to find “A+ regional sites that fit the demographic of specialty grocery” stores. Through a longstanding relationship with Whole Foods, it generally builds for that chain. But it’s not exclusive. S.J. Collins built a Fresh Market-anchored center in Lynchburg, Va., that opened in 2013, and Garrison says it wouldn’t rule out working with other grocers.
S.J. Collins has around 20 employees. Garrison says the company has maintained a “very healthy growth” rate during the past seven years. Officials decline to release specific revenue figures.
A majority of the firm’s projects, says Garrison, have met little resistance from community groups and elected officials — at least not the kind of pushback that’s derailed other retail developments across the region.
Other projects have leaned more controversial, particularly University Station in Sarasota. That project, over a two-year period, went through multiple hearings and a lawsuit. The gist of the issue: Environmental groups contended Sarasota County officials erred in approving the project because it was inconsistent with the county’s policy for preserving wetlands. S.J. Collins bought 40 acres connected to Rye Preserve in north Manatee County for off-site mitigation, but the contentiousness surrounding University Station has lingered.
Garrison says S.J. Collins spent at least $2.6 million on permits, legal fees and assorted other tasks on University Station before construction began. And even with that expense, the lawsuits and pushback, Garrison says working with community leaders on projects isn’t the company’s biggest challenge.
The biggest challenge, instead, is a recent trend in financing for projects. Lenders, Garrison says, are demanding faster and higher returns on investments. That poses obstacles to delivering experience-like projects Garrison says are necessary in the new retail real estate landscape. Necessary, but more expensive.
“There’s a loud pressure to not do things that don’t have an immediate economic return,” says Garrison. “That’s a big balancing act for what we do.”